Archive for October, 2008

Red-tailed Hawk and Crows

Friday, October 31st, 2008

October came to a quiet end today with a pleasantly warm, sunny day, a clear blue sky and autumn sunlight filtering through a mixture of green, yellow, orange, and wine-red leaves. Every day there are a few more patchy clusters of orange-brown leaves in the white oaks. The sweet gums have all turned burgundy or dirty gold, the dogwoods dusty red, the water oaks speckled in dull green and brown. The leaves in the pecans are mostly yellowish, thin, curling, and falling. It’s been an abundant year for acorns, especially in the white oaks. All day and night huge, heavy acorns still plonk down noisily onto the deck and the balcony right outside our bedroom windows.

Early this afternoon, crickets and grasshoppers chirped loudly and a few sulphur butterflies drifted through open, sunny spots. Threads of spider silk hung in the air and caught in the leaves of the trees. One Red-bellied Woodpecker and one Downy worked on excavating holes in the dead and dying pines. Some of these trees already are riddled with holes, and today the Downy fussed aggressively at the much larger Red-bellied Woodpecker when it came too close to one it was working on, in what was left of a skinny, skeletal dead trunk of a pine that looked like it was more holes than tree.

Eight Turkey Vultures sailed over, traveling together, from northeast to southwest. A Phoebe hunted from very low branches near the ground on the edge of the woods. Then a Red-tailed Hawk flew over the treetops with three Crows noisily harassing it. The Hawk was silent, wings outstretched, looking perhaps more serene than it felt, circling and climbing as the Crows flapped and cawed and darted and snapped all around it.

About thirty minutes later, the hawk was sitting in a pecan tree by the road as I walked out the front door. The Crows must have given up or lost it. It spread its wings and lifted into the air, and its shadow passed over me as it flew back over the house. I walked out into a clear spot and watched it circle several times, at first quite low, as it gradually climbed higher in the cloudless, deep blue sky. Again, it flew silently, and the way the sunlight filtered through its broad, outstretched wings made it look almost angelic in a powerful way, lit from within by a strength and grace beyond my understanding. Its underside was pale with one low dark band of streaks across the breast, a brown-hooded head, dark shoulders and wing-tips, and muted red-orange tail. The fine details of patterns in its wings and breast were elusive, like subtle gray lines in shifting white sand. It never flapped its wings, but held them out almost flat, tilting the tail and wingtips only, and turning its head from side to side. At one point, while it was still pretty low, it crossed paths with a Turkey Vulture also circling upwards, in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, when it was very high, it screamed, just once.

White-throated Sparrows Return

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This afternoon – a sunny day with temperatures barely reaching around 70 – our first two White-throated Sparrows of the season appeared in the front yard. Their familiar tseet calls caught my attention as I was walking down the driveway, and sure enough, I found them in the shadows of the loropetalum and wax myrtles, where their neat white throats identified them quickly.

It’s nice to have them back, but I’m a little worried about whether they and other birds that need good low shrubby habitat will stay around this year. Last spring both we and our neighbors severely pruned a lot of wax myrtles, forsythia and other bushes – they had gotten pretty overgrown and needed a trim, but I had planned to plant many more shrubs this fall and haven’t been able to do it, so I’m now afraid that we won’t have as many ground-loving birds as we usually do in winter. The Hermit Thrush that usually comes for the winter, the Eastern Towhees, and Brown Thrashers, as well as the White-throated Sparrows – I can only hope there are still enough bushes around to provide them the cover and the food sources they need.

Also out front this afternoon were two male House Finches, both a rather subdued red color, visiting the feeders and the bird bath and trying – unsuccessfully – to chase away the Chickadees and Titmice. Golden-crowned Kinglets called as they traveled through the oaks and pecans, and one Turkey Vulture and two Black Vultures soared in a cloudless blue sky.

Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Still Some Warblers Passing Through

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

Early mornings are much quieter now than a few weeks ago. Though nights have gotten a little cooler, crickets still sing, and a few late katydids, and the first bird songs or calls I heard this morning, well before first light – like most days this past week – were the harsh rasp of a Mockingbird, the bright, musical songs of four or five Carolina Wrens, and the sibilant song of a Phoebe.

This morning around 8:30, a small flock of about a dozen Blackbirds flew over. Then a Northern Flicker flew into the top of a tall dead pine, arriving with a hollow Quorrr call. It stayed for only a minute or two, long enough for me to admire its handsome profile, spotted breast and thick black crescent high on the breast, then flew away with another, softer Quorrr.*

Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches come and go from the feeders all day long, while Cardinals and Mourning Doves usually forage on the ground below, sometimes joined by a Chipping Sparrow or two.

In one part of the woods behind our house several tall pines have turned red-brown and are dead or dying, and while I’m sorry to lose them – and wonder what that will mean for our nuthatches, pine warblers, golden-crowned kinglets and other pine-loving birds – right now they seem to be providing a bonanza for Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as for Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. The calls of all three, and the sounds of them working on the trunks, are among the most characteristic parts of the soundscape outside right now, especially the chucking and rattling of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers and the emphatic peenk! of the Hairys.

This afternoon, I spent a pleasant, but frustrating hour or so watching warblers in the treetops, most of which I never managed to see well enough to identify. There were certainly one Tennessee and one Chestnut-sided Warbler, which may have been what they all were, but most of them moved so quickly through the foliage of the oaks, in and out of sunshine and shadow and often up near the tops of the trees, that I felt as I often do in the fall – reminded of how much I cannot see and do not know. Which is, on the whole, not a bad thing. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t, but it’s a fine thing to know they are there, and even a finer thing that they remain elusive, wild, mysterious, and not easy to pin down and classify. Though it’s still frustrating!

*The species account in Birds of North America describes this call as a “whurdle” and says it is the Flicker’s “least-known and least-heard vocalization. Indeed, the mechanism of its production still needs to be established . . . . Whurdle is a soft sound that has been described as a ‘gurgling almost involuntary chur-r-r-r-r’ (Burns 1900) given on the wing.”

Wiebe, Karen L. and William S. Moore. 2008. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornitholothology.

Winter Arrivals – Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

They’re back. Thursday evening, October 16, I heard the distinct, high, thin ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets, the first winter resident birds to arrive here around our home this season. I heard them again on Friday, a gray and rainy day, but even though I could see them in the treetops now and then, in breaks in the rain, I couldn’t get a good look at even one. Today, again I could hear their calls in the trees all around, and finally was able to see one clearly in the pines – a tiny, quick-moving sliver of energy with bright white wing-bars, a black and white striped face and head, and a golden-yellow crown. At times it sounds as if there are dozens of them in the trees around our house, but that’s probably deceptive, and maybe some of them will be moving on to other locations for the winter, but I hope some will stay near.

Early this morning, when the sky was still cloudy and gray, and everything was soaked from yesterday’s good long rains, I heard a familiar burst of chatter from a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a line of thick wax myrtles. Then, as I walked up the driveway for the paper, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s mewing call was repeated several times in the woods across the street. Later in the afternoon, a juvenile Sapsucker, with no red showing on either head or throat, flew from trunk to trunk around the edge of the yard.

It seems to me it’s late for the arrival of the Sapsucker, at least, and even for the Kinglets, but I haven’t been able to be out as often or to take my usual walks through the neighborhood for the past few weeks, so what I’m seeing and hearing now are strictly the arrivals of winter residents around our own house and yard. It’s good to see them again. Welcome back!

Happy Hour

Friday, October 17th, 2008

As I was walking past a window overlooking the birdbath in our front yard this afternoon about 4:00, I saw two Bluebirds down in the water taking a bath. By the time I’d gotten my binoculars, they were gone, of course, but in less than a minute one of them, an unusually bright-colored female, came back and got right back down in the leaf-spotted water for a long, full, energetic dip. She stayed for several minutes, repeatedly fluttering her wings. Four or five other small birds tried to approach, but she discouraged them and wouldn’t give up her place. Although her head and back were a subdued blue-gray, parts of her wings and tail were bright blue, her breast and flanks were rich rusty-orange, and white eye-rings gave her a wide-eyed, fresh and eager look. I was especially happy to see her because Bluebirds have been conspicuously absent from our yard since late August.

After several small birds had tried and failed to join her or take her place, a big Red-bellied Woodpecker flew to the edge of the bath and stayed to take several sips of water, undeterred by her feints at him, then it hopped up and into the water, sending the Bluebird flying away in a splash. The Red-bellied Woodpecker then repeated the same performance, dipping down low in the water, ruffling his feathers and fluttering his wings over and over to soak his feathers all over.

He took his time for a leisurely wash, and it wasn’t until he flew up to a branch to shake off and preen that a Phoebe came and perched on the edge watchfully, for several delicate sips of water. When a Blue Jay swooped down with a noisy flourish for a drink, the Phoebe flew away, but as soon as the Blue Jay was gone, the Phoebe returned for several more sips. Then a squirrel hopped up and curled awkwardly over the edge for a long drink, and when it was gone, two Carolina Chickadees came together to drink, followed by two Brown-headed Nuthatches, which always cling to the trunk of the water oak beside the birdbath first, and then flit down to the edge to dip their bills into the water and tip their heads back to swallow.

Meanwhile, the Chickadees, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice and a Downy Woodpecker were busy going from one feeder to another, and a pair of Cardinals fed on the ground and visited the other birdbath to drink. A Pine Warbler sang from the edge of the woods, about a half-dozen Chimney Swifts circled overhead, and a Northern Flicker called Kleer!

Happy Hour was about to come to a close when I saw a small bird foraging among the speckled and faded water oak leaves, and it turned out to be a female Bay-breasted Warbler. Several Bay-breasted Warblers have stayed around this week – and I’ve seen a number of other reports of them, so maybe it’s a good year for Bay-breasted Warblers – but all the others I’ve seen so far have been males. This one, with intensely green-yellow head, face and back, a very faint streak through the eye, and a pattern of muted streaks on the back, looked feminine and pretty. Her throat was white, her breast and flanks pale yellow, with soft streaks on the flanks and no hint of the reddish-brown coloring on the males. She had two bright white wing bars, with a white belly, and the typical sturdy Bay-breasted shape and way of moving.

I think I’ve seen more Bay-breasted Warblers this fall than ever before, and have enjoyed several really nice close-up looks at them, and feel as if I’m much more familiar with them now – instead of just catching brief, passing sightings.

Golden-winged Warbler, Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted and More – A Colorful Wave of Fall Migrants Passing Through

Friday, October 10th, 2008

When I first stepped outside this afternoon around 4:15, the trees around our house seemed quiet, with no hint of what was to come. The sky had recently cleared after a cloudy, gray morning and two days of rain, and it was warm, sunny and breezy. The woods still looked green, though many leaves had washed down in the rain. At first, I heard only the wind in the trees, a few Blue Jays, Titmice and Chickadees, and the rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A Hairy Woodpecker announced its arrival among a stand of dead and dying pines and set to work. A Pine Warbler sang, and then I heard the call of a Summer Tanager somewhere nearby, but out of sight. Its soft, repeated pik-a-tuk was the first sign of what would turn out to be one of the most amazing hours of birding I’ve ever experienced.

Some movement in the branches of an oak turned out to be a Tennessee Warbler, giving occasional faint tssit calls. A small, quick-moving bird with a smooth, almost velvety olive back and wings, a white breast and belly, and a delicate, pale streak above its eye, it stayed in constant motion, mostly hidden among the foliage as it gleaned insects and spiders from under the leaves, often turning upside down, and occasionally emerging long enough for me to see it well – before it disappeared into the depths of a large dogwood tree.

As I turned away, a much larger, slender bird with a long tail flew into the top part of a tall young oak. It was mostly hidden among the leaves, but as it moved up higher, I could see a pale breast and a haughty profile with a large, curved bill – then it flew right into a branch in the white oak beside the deck where I was standing, and perched in full view – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It was silent, but gave me an unusually close-up view of its sleek shape, creamy white throat and breast, smooth brown back, and the dramatic underside of its long tail, black with big white spots. I could even see whiskers or bristles around the yellow bill, though I can find no reference to them in species accounts and descriptions.

Another small, compact bird in one of the oaks turned out to be a Chestnut-sided Warbler. With a greenish head and back, two yellowish wing bars, and a white eye ring, it was one of the easiest migrants to see, staying relatively low in the branches and often coming into full view as it darted from spot to spot. From that point on, the trees suddenly seemed to be filled with warblers and vireos, and for the next hour and a half or so, I couldn’t move fast enough to see them all: Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, and Bay-breasted, Yellow-throated, Magnolia, and Black-throated Green Warblers – and last, but most exciting for me, a vivid, close-up view of a Golden-winged Warbler. All were very active, many brightly colorful, and most were so intent on foraging that I was able to watch them for several minutes.

The Yellow-throated Warblers were perhaps the showiest of the group, frequently hawking insects from the ends of high branches in the oaks. Their heads were constantly turned up, showing off long necks, long thin bills, and flaming yellow throats, set off by ink-black markings around the face and eyes and down the sides. The Bay-breasted Warblers, in contrast, looked sturdy and rather stolid, moving much more deliberately through the branches to catch caterpillars, and then sitting quietly to eat each one. The ones I saw were males in handsome fall plumage, with greenish head and back, white wingbars, a yellowish face and subtle dark streak through the eye, a faint but distinctive pattern of streaks on the back, and a wash of reddish-brown on the flanks.

A Black-throated Green Warbler perched in the top of an oak as if posing, with its yellow face glowing in sunlight, and the black of its throat and upper breast bleeding down its sides in thick streaks. Caterpillars seemed to be the main attraction for both the Yellow-throated Vireo and Blue-headed Vireo, but also some flying insects. The Yellow-throated Vireo more often stayed screened in the foliage, and I only caught quick glances of its yellow throat, yellow spectacles, blue-gray wings with delicate bars, and white belly. The Blue-headed Vireo moved more often out into the open and stayed lower in the trees, moving from branch to branch, unmistakable with its slate-blue head and striking white spectacles.

Meanwhile, Magnolia Warblers fluttered like butterflies, flashing yellow rumps and white tail-bands, recognizable even from directly below, with their yellow breasts, and tails that are white underneath and tipped with a thick, dark charcoal band. There were so many birds that I felt as if I couldn’t move fast enough to see them all – but at the same time, it was hard to tear myself away from watching each one.

Just when I thought surely it couldn’t get any better, I saw a very brightly patterned bird curled around the leaves at the end of a low branch in a water oak. I’m sure my mouth fell open in disbelief as I noted each of the field marks – gray back, rich yellow-gold crown, white face, black mask and throat, and thick, gleaming gold bar on the wing – it was a Golden-winged Warbler, a life bird for me, and a songbird whose populations are in serious decline. It looked small and round and neat, a little ball of intense patterns of color, moving in an almost chickadee-like way as it probed and gleaned insects from the leaves, and it stayed in full view for several minutes.

Then suddenly, it was over. When the Golden-winged Warbler flew, I looked around, and watched two Yellow-throated Warblers hawking insects again. But when they disappeared, I could find no more. One minute they were there – the next, they were gone.